Dec 29, 2009

Phrase of the Day

I don't always agree with A.O. Scott (his love affair with Clint Eastwood puzzles me, to say the least). But I love him when he gets ornery. He should do it more often.
On the New Sherlock Holmes movie:
as Holmes and his pal Watson... scramble to unravel a conspiracy so diabolical that it fails to be interesting.
 Love that phrase.

Dec 28, 2009

Trailer Music

Can we declare a moratorium on overwrought, fake operatic, Carmina Burana rip offs for every single movie trailer on Earth?
It doesn't matter if it is a fantasy, or an action film or yet another dumbass movie with Nicholas Cage and a bad wig, they all have the same ponderous operatic shit going on.
Very disturbing.
And what's with that interminable National Guard ad at the movies that uses the longest version of an overwrought, fake operatic, Carmina Burana rip off? Zip it already.
Thank you.

He's No Sherlock

What a waste of money and talent, this Sherlock Holmes film.
A lot of busy flair but no finesse, no panache, no elegance, not much wit, no suspense. Just another bloated entertainment that confuses action with cramming the frame with every Victorian knickknack available (this is entertaining for about half an hour).
The movie starts well enough but it soon squanders our good will with sloppy action sequences and bad direction.
I love RDJ, but I'm getting tired of his shtick. Unfortunately, like most American actors, he is incapable of doing an accent. Therefore, Sherlock Holmes, the most articulate of men, spends half the movie mumbling. The other half, he spends looking like a deer caught in the headlights, trying to look intelligent. I was thinking of Clive Owen. He, at least, would have had the right accent, and the right demeanor. The problem with Downey, besides the accent, is that he is about as British as a surfer dude. He is a natural American ham, so he doesn't have the restraint, the repression, the sangfroid that the character requires. I did not get a lot of chemistry between him and his adored Watson, played, as if the film's exertions were exhausting him, by Jude Law.  
There was potential to this movie. It is about superstition versus reason, or what I think is the actual topic, religious fanaticism, versus reason. But instead of you-know- which religious fanatics, we have some sort of idiotic demonic society with a lot of Hebrew lettering (and me wondering if this is revenge on the Kabbalistic ex-wife of the director, aka Esther) and a plot, that is "so diabolical that it fails to be interesting", as A. O Scott said so adroity.
The whole point of the character of Sherlock Holmes is that he solves the cases by his wits, not with his fists. This Sherlock Holmes always enters fighting. Don't men get ever tired of going to blows? Why is this interesting?  What's worse, there is no sense of discovery, or aha, which is why one likes detective stories. The movie is a concatenation of useless set pieces but no real sleuthing.
Had the movie been directed by someone like Steven Spielberg or John Woo, people who are geniuses at devising action sequences that are both witty, over the top and nailbiting, it could have been an interesting franchise, but it was directed by the wrecking ball that is Guy Ritchie, a guy with the storytelling abilities and the attention span of a music video. So the bag of music video tricks from the 90's gets old very fast. The action sequences are neither fun nor suspenseful and the movie becomes extremely tedious. Yet, it is cynical enough to keep a sequel in mind, with another arch-nemesis. This time, instead of superstition, the enemy will be a professor (intellectuals are always suspect in mindless entertainments).
Hopefully next time they get someone better at the helm.

Dec 23, 2009

2009 Thespians and Directors

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Matt Damon, The Informant!
Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Colin Firth, A Single Man

Great Job
Ben Foster, The Messenger
Tobey Maguire, Brothers
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Alan Arkin, The private lives of Pippa Lee

Best Actress
Kim Hye Ja, Mother
Catalina Saavedra, The Maid
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Abby Cornish, Bright Star
I'm tired of saying this, but Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia. 
I didn't see Mo'nique but I'm sure she rocks. 

Great Job
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Joon Ho-Bong, Mother
Spike Jonze, Where The Wild Things Are
Sebastián Silva, The Maid

Dec 21, 2009

Marketing is the Death of Movies

Today I had an epiphany.
I realize that I keep expecting Hollywood to give us better movies. This is like expecting McDonald's to serve filet mignon with truffles. It ain't gonna happen. So why not go with the flow. Why not accept, finally, that what Hollywood does is roll out product, in the same way as Procter & Gamble rolls out a new and improved detergent or Hasbro a new toy. With marketing and focus groups and certain approved ingredients. Same thing rehashed over and over, not much deviation, just a brutal hunger for dominance of shelf space.
This was brought about by this maddening article in the NY Times Magazine by Daphne Merkin (behaving like a wide eyed innocent in LaLa Land) about Nancy Meyers and the movies she makes for women.
Merkin is amazed that Nancy Meyers, who is a reliable hack, is about the only woman that gets final cut for her films. The reason is simple: her bland, unrealistic, embarrassing, formulaic movies about "empowered" middle aged women, come with studio pre-approval already factored in. There is nothing creative to fight about.
The only movie of hers I like (and was surprised to find it was by her and her ex, Charles Shyer) is Private Benjamin. That is a great comedy (or so I remember it). But why should there be movies for women? I am a woman. I watch movies. Period. I don't watch movies that are expressly designed for me, like sanitary pads. Same goes for chick lit. It's offensive. Yes, there are film genres that women like better, but on the whole I think women are far more amenable than men to watch a variety of experience, from romantic comedies, to dramas to gangster films to whatever.
However, the industry itself has conditioned the audience to behave like this, to box themselves into marketing categories. This is understandable for detergent (are you a scent seeker, or a clean freak?), but it's tragic for filmmaking. It debases the art form. I saw The Bicycle Thief yesterday. I'm still recovering from the devastation to my heart (for the third time). Made in 1947, it is as true and real and timeless and miraculous today as it was then. I bet Vittorio De Sica did not run around like a headless chicken wondering if his movie was going to appeal to women and the 15-24 demographic.
He made a movie about poverty, desperation and human dignity, about the loss of innocence, about a society without compassion. Who is the demographic for that? Everybody, that's who.
But here in the US, people are obsessed with genre and demographics. Every time there is a Q&A with a foreign filmmaker, invariably somebody asks in puzzled bewilderment "Who is the audience for this movie? Is this a comedy? Is this a thriller?"
Does it really matter that much? We should all be able to enjoy good stories well told, regardless of their genre or the sex and age of their protagonists. I understand the film industry is a business. It should be a successful business. But it looks like in Hollywood the business side has run out of control.
Somehow, Pedro Almodovar makes kitschy gay movies for everybody. He is wildly successful. Lucrecia Martel, one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world today, makes great movies, not movies for women. Here, Judd Apatow smartly invented the bromantic comedy (we need to classify it somehow), only to find it quickly cheapened by endless repetition and bad imitations. Hollywood raids other people's stories and steamrolls them until they are inhuman and unrecognizable (sort of like processed foods). Most of the time, you see a Hollywood extravaganza of marketing-induced fakeness, and you may be entertained for a little while but you always get a funky aftertaste, a hole in the pit of your brain, the opposite of satiety, a dreadful feeling of wasted time and of being patronized, disrespected.
There is no escaping the fucking marketing.
The only way out is to ignore it. To continue watching deeply nourishing and satisfying films that are not made like detergent.

Dec 20, 2009

The Year In Movies

Best Movies of the Year
The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke
Mother, Joon Ho-Bong
Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
Lebanon, Shmuel Maoz
Bright Star, Jane Campion
The Maid, Sebastián Silva

Best American Movies
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow
Where The Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze
The Informant! Steven Soderbergh
Adventureland, Greg Mottola
The Messenger, Oren Moverman
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson

Good Small Movies
Still Walking
The Damned United
Summer Hours
A Single Man
Crazy Heart  
Two Lovers
Cold Souls
Paranormal Activity

A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Funny People
Julie and Julia
The Soloist
Public Enemies
An Education

Bad Movies
The Limits of Control
Public Enemies
Drag Me To Hell
Away We Go

Hollywood Dreck
The Hangover
Up in The Air
Public Enemies

Best Docs of the Year
Anvil, The Story of Anvil.
Food, Inc.
American Casino
Valentino, The Last Emperor

Disappointing Docs
Capitalism, A Love Story. 
La Danse

Bad Docs
This is It
Every Little Step

Infommercial Docs 
The September Issue
It Might Get Loud

Self Indulgent Auteurs
Antichrist, Lars Von Trier
Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodóvar
The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch
Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino
Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz

Best Old Movies Seen in Theatres
The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed
Small Change, François Truffaut
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston
The Bicycle Thief, Vittorio de Sica

Avatar: Review of a Movie I Haven't Seen

The trailer made it look and sound utterly stupid. But now my curiosity is piqued, mainly because critics are showing it some love. However, what I'm hearing is not reassuring.

• It's like when Star Wars came out:
I was 14 when that happened, stood in the sweltering Mexico City sun for two hours to be able to get in and HATED every single minute of the movie except for the cantina scene with the funky extraterrestrials having drinks at the bar.

• It's like Dances With Wolves but with blue people:
Dances with Wolves is not, in my book, an admirable movie. If you are going to steal a story, that is rather low on the totem pole.

• The CGI is a game changer:
Sounds like a theme park ride rather than a movie. If I approach it like this, well maybe. I'll pay 15 bucks to go on a rollercoaster and save myself the whiplash (but apparently not the nausea).
Movies have become stories about merchandise and video games. That people are not horrified by this is beyond me.
I blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for creating the blockbusters that ruined the small movie and created the Hollywood we have today. Spielberg did some nifty things; Lucas, I am not a fan. We have them to thank for the bloated, morally suspect extravaganzas that destroy everything else in sight (2012, for instance). I fear that this may happen with Avatar. Now we can expect a barrage of stupid, expensive motion capture 3D theme park rides with terrible writing. If indeed it does well. So far, more than $200 million dollars worldwide this weekend; $73 million stateside with half the country buried in snow. It cost like $500 000 000.
I'm tempted to see it because I suspect that it will be easy to tear it a new one in terms of its own hypocrisy (it's supposed to have an ecofriendly message).
I'm just glad I saw The Bicycle Thief again today.

• The music includes pan flutes:
And this, my friends, is all we need to know.

Dec 18, 2009

The Dude Abides

I don't think the Oscars have ever broken my heart more (in a long history of absurd expectations from my part) than when Jeff Bridges was not even nominated for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of the most magnificent comedic performances of all time.  Now it's time for redress.

Jeff Bridges is quintessentially American. You could not confuse him for anything but. He could be the living embodiment of the state of California. But in movies like The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and now Crazy Heart, he is the American who fails at being American. He fails at success. But he has also played, equally well, Americans who succeed (or at least try, like in Tucker), or in Seabiscuit. He has also, magnificently, played an alien, in Starman. Whether he is a magnate or a bum or from outer space, he is always totally believable. And this is because he is one of the most psychologically intelligent actors we have. Plus, he has charisma and sexiness to no end.
Jeff Bridges is, like Gene Hackman, one of those actors in whom you cannot see the acting wheels turning (as opposed to other great actors like De Niro, Pacino and Sean Penn). He's not showy, does not call attention to himself with big dramatic gestures. He just is. Whatever it is he does, he invests the characters with a strong and psychologically sound core.
In Crazy Heart he plays Bad Blake, an aging, disillusioned Country music star who has just given up. He is broke, playing dumps and drunk. We've all seen that one before. But there is a character in this man. He is pathetic but there is no self pity in him. There is rather an ornery pride in keeping life from intruding on his self-destruction, which he indulges with wonderful panache. Bridges is the absolute master of the who gives a fuck attitude. In this case, he is not a benign fuck up, like The Dude. He is a proud, yet insolvent, drunk. He looks like shit and feels like shit and is so down on himself that he shows no respect for the audience anymore, he can't see why they like him.
Bridges so totally owns the performance that you forget he is acting. He is not a convincing drunk. He is a drunk. Alcoholics are showpieces for actors, but I think they are very hard to fake. This man here is a full blown, fighting alcoholic. He refuses to be pathetic, he is just proud and extremely out of touch with life. That's the drunk part. Then there is the Country singer part.  His singing voice is not big, but it is fine and it has heart. He plays guitar well too, but what amazed me was how he behaved on stage: like a man who has played music in front of people for ages.
The movie is a big cliché. It's not a bad cliché, and it has some great moments, but also some groaners. Bad has not spoken to his son since the kid was four, he has made mistakes, etc. In less capable hands, it could have been painful, but Bridges refuses to let Bad down easy. He barely registers hurt, yet, you can feel it swimming in liquor somewhere down there, bubbling up to the surface quiety, devastatingly, as yet another awful disappointment.
And then there is that speaking Bridges voice of honey and whisky and ash. There is a wonderful scene where he gets to play a big venue and he has a pissing match with the sound engineer. Bad is not about to become all meek and cooperative just because someone is giving him a chance. Half the scene is played with the camera behind him, but everything is in the voice: tired, knowing, ironic, proud, stubborn, insistent. "I'm an old man", he says in the end, "humor me."
There is a lot of wonderful talent at the service of a movie that were it not for it, could be quite pedestrian. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very good (though in some scenes, annoyingly mannered) as Bad's love interest. They have a wonderful chemistry, and real intimacy. Robert Duvall plays Bad's old friend. The two of them together are a wonder to behold. The music by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton is excellent.
But there are misses. Colin Farrell shows his lack of chops, playing a Billy Ray Cyrus kind of country star. Next to Bridges, he doesn't quite cut the mustard. The little kid that plays Gyllenhaal's son is annoying and hammy. These are problems of direction.
Then there are problems of writing. If an alcoholic decides to quit the booze, this is as heroic as it gets. There is no further need to redeem himself. But the movie ends with a really corny coda that is totally unnecessary and strained. Had it ended with Bad playing his new song quietly in his porch, it would have been more true to the authenticity and the generosity of so much talent.

Dec 13, 2009

A Single Man

A Single Man is based on a story by Christopher Isherwood. It's a gay movie. It is a mainstream gay movie. I was thinking, when did this happen? Since when do we have a mainstream movie with bona fide actors about the personal story of a gay man? Okay, since Brokeback Mountain, but somehow this one feels more authentic. This one  has no big heroics or politics or didactics or speechifying, or trying to make the audience feel guilty or outraged or good about itself. It's not something like last year's Milk, the Gandhi of gays, which cunningly couched the gayness in the all-American tropes of heroism and individual glory, and got some well deserved prizes along the way.  
A Single Man is private and devastating. Considering that it is fashion designer Tom Ford's first film, it is pretty impressive. He successfully creates an atmosphere, not so much of a time where objects were so much more beautiful, the early sixties, but rather of the stifling, utterly sad funk of having to live a perfectly dignified life in hiding.
And for that, you need an actor like Colin Firth, with a fierce intelligence, utter control and an ocean of feeling underneath. He is perfect as college professor George Falconer, a fastidious, closeted gay man (gay and British: doubly repressed) who loses his lover of 16 years (Matthew Goode) and is devastated. The loss is devastating in itself, but is compounded by the tragedy of living a secret life when you have done nothing to deserve the shame.
Falconer must keep his grief mostly to himself, as he is not able to share it openly. He is kept in the dark about the loss until a disembodied male voice over a telephone has the charitable gallantry of informing him there's been an accident, several days after the fact. He is not invited to the funeral. Of his partner of 16 years. Yet the movie does not express outrage. It creates the emotional atmosphere of shattering loss without pity or sentimentality.  
For the role, Firth lost some girth and he looks better than ever, unbearably stylish, sporting immaculate clothes, a fabulous haircut and big black rimmed glasses (you want to ravish him). To watch him with Julianne Moore, who plays his best friend Charlotte, is to see the contrasting styles of British and American acting of the highest caliber.  Moore is terrific as an old friend and British boozer who is in love with him, a lonely, hysterical woman grasping at straws. Feeling oozes through her pores, loose and frightening. With him is the opposite. It's all bottled up. They are both fabulous together.
Colin Firth is not particularly handsome, but he has that which makes women melt: there is warmth and vulnerability underneath the icy smartness, and we all want to coax it out of him. Like all good British thespians, he acts with his voice. He infuses a line like, "Nobody else calls me before 8 in the morning, Charlotte" with so much personal history, it is almost shocking, funny and heartbreaking. He is magnificent.
Everything looks beautifully art directed, as one might expect from a fashion designer. The movie made me horribly nostalgic for the beauty of solid state objects when I was growing up: the rotary phones, the gleaming vending machines, the fabulous sixties furniture, things made of metal and wood, things made to last. Ford has chosen a style that tries to convey the claustrophobic, suffocating anxiety of Falconer's grief, as he zeroes in on the details, which is I suppose how gay men in those days were able to make sense of who were friends and foes in the world. It's also how things feel when you are dying of grief. The focus changes to the trees instead of the forest, so you can survive the day. Sometimes the stylishness seems to get a little in the way, but the respect for the emotions and their authenticity never wavers. It's an adult, mature movie, which is very generous and moves me deeply. I really appreciate it, someone in America making such a film.
Also, all that sexual repression is terribly sexy. Sexual tension is all about delayed gratification, and in this movie there is no obvious gratification. The gratification comes from small, furtive gestures, sometimes it seems only from surprising gratitude at finding a fellow traveler. When a male student shows interest in him, even at his lowest point of desperation, Falconer knows better than to yield, even though he is immensely touched by the attention. He does not act on that unbearable frisson of passion under the surface, yet it's all there. The tension between his desire and his experience is palpable. This is very sexy.
I don't know about straight men or gay men, but women are going to swoon.


I sneaked in, because I'll be damned if I pay to see a Clint Eastwood movie, and I want my money back. I want my time back. I want him to apologize to me for thinking that we the audience are a bunch of morons who will swallow this pompous, boring absurdity, that takes its plot from reality but has absolutely nothing to do with it.
Then, it is just a marvel of cognitive dissonance to read A.O. Scott's review. In the interest of time, will reproduce here what I wrote today in the comments section of the Times:

I fail to understand Mr. Scott's love affair (and the rest of American film critics) with the hack work of Clint Eastwood. The movie is boring, written as if by a schoolteacher talking to 7 year olds, the excellent Mr. Damon is wasted, and except for Morgan Freeman and Damon there is not one ounce of true, complex feeling in the entire thing. The dialogue is obvious and cringe inducing, the bit actors hammy and terrible, the whole thing directed with no subtlety, ugly photography, the pace excruciatingly repetitive and boring, the cheesy music, faux African and overwrought, the entire thing manages to be a disaster.
Had this same film been made by any other filmmaker, I bet Mr. Scott would be tearing it apart for the mediocre garbage it is.
I don't get it. I don't understand the blind spot, the adulation of this terrible hack.

Dec 9, 2009

It's Implausible

I woke up thinking about Up in The Air. The more I think about this movie, the less I like it.
But let me digress a little: I am currently attempting to write the second draft of a screenplay. It's like giving birth to a cactus. I read a couple of books; mostly they made me feel suicidal. They tell you what has to happen on page 30, on page 60 and on page 90 if you want to succeed as a screenwriter. There have to be plot points and plot turns and turns within the turns, with exacting precision, as if you were building a time bomb. One ghastly book by Syd Field holds the script of Titanic to be the gold standard in movie writing (cue me tearing my hair out in despair). The other screenwriting bible, Story, is slightly more useful but beats me if I remember anything this annoying, pretentious man commands me to do. You can get the book for $30 or take the 3 day course for $700 and they are word by word exactly the same. You tell me.
To judge from some Hollywood movies I've seen lately, screenwriters take this advice to heart. In a good movie, the turns happen organically, they shake you up emotionally, but you don't see them coming round the bend, and you can't stick a flag in them and yell PLOT POINT!
Up in the Air is a good example of a movie where you can actually pinpoint the plot turns, they are so forced.  If you suspend your disbelief for a fraction of a second, nothing that happens is believable. The more I think about it, the more I feel duped.
How come a movie like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon has total plot, but does not feel contrived? It feels like a mystery. The characters are coherent in themselves (crazy as bats, but coherent). Or the Dardennes' L'Enfant. A young, reckless father wants to sell his baby boy for money. Extreme, but nothing that happens in this movie is not believable.
Meanwhile, stateside, the absurdities pile on, with no regard to the intelligence of the audience. Why are we so fake in America?
If you intend to see Up in the Air, I'm warning you, here comes my list of absurdities, aka major spoiler alert:
1. Clooney lives in Omaha and works for a corporation. This is a stretch, 'cause Everyman he ain't. He has been good as a dutiful worker in movies like Syriana and Michael Clayton, but there he was CIA spy and New York lawyer, not schmo from Omaha.
2. He fires people for a living. These kinds of corporations better exist in real life.
3. He is also a motivational speaker. This could be a satyrical point if the movie had bothered to set it up as such. As it is, I never understood what he motivates people about. He seems to be telling them to dispossess themselves from all their relationships. This is not believable.
4. This is a man who'd rather endure the torture of modern flying than be at home in Omaha. Granted, it's Omaha, and he flies business and gets all the preferential shortcuts, but still, the movie never mentions the unease of flying, the fear of death. I know a lot of people fly without it (how, it's beyond me) but there is something too perfect about his complacency at living in airport and hotel Genericland, which, as far as I'm concerned, is Hell. I find it hard to believe that it is not horrifying to him, even for a second. 
5. As he waits in an executive lounge, Clooney meets Vera Farmiga, another million mile traveler. I lost heart with the film in this scene. The dialogue is supposed to ricochet like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant's in His Girl Friday, but it is actually a leaden pissing match about car rental companies and frequent flyer programs. It could be funnier if the characters were allowed to show nuance. But it seems that in American films everything is so streamlined and efficient that there is no time for gesture anymore. Everything is broad strokes (see Brothers).
5. A young tyro, played by Sarah Kendrick, is hired to streamline the firing process, by doing it via teleconference. This girl is going to change the ways of an entire company just because Jason Bateman took a shine to her. Right.
Clooney's character balks, because that means he will have to stay home. He is horrified by the inhumanity of the new process. Hence, Bateman decides that Clooney needs to show Kendrick the ropes and take her with him on his travels. This is a typical premise of romantic comedy. Fine.
6. But then she shows up at the airport with a huge, cumbersome bag, looking ridiculous. Hell, nowadays everybody and their mother, no matter how unhip, understands and enjoys (and actually has no choice, given the airline restrictions) the glories of compact roller bags. But this is a pretext for a silly scene where Clooney buys her a bag in the airport and throws her pillow and her neck pillow in the trash.
7. Kendrick gets on Clooney's case about his stubborn bachelordom. They just met. They are uneasy colleagues. Yet she butts in too much. She gets too personal, and she is supposed to be a bit of a cold fish. Doesn't make sense.
8. Clooney falls in love (yay!) with Farmiga. He starts warming up to the joys of human company. He invites her to his sister's wedding, where of course the groom gets to have cold feet the day of, and Clooney must save the day. BS.
The movie takes a spin into the redemption of Clooney in which crazy shit starts happening just because he needs to redeem himself. He writes a letter of recommendation for Kendrick and I'll be damned if I know how he knew where to send it.
9. Then, any movie that casts Sam Elliott as an American Airlines pilot has got to be kidding me. I'm never flying American again.
10. Clooney goes looking for Farmiga only to find out the awful truth, that she has been playing by the rules of the road, like a man. At first I actually liked this turn, because it really felt shocking. But thinking about it, this woman, who seemed no nonsense and honest, and never showed any intimation of being anything but solid and mature, has been lying to him the entire time and did not at any point say to him, listen pal, I have a life back in Chicago but I am lonely on the road, let's have a fabulous affair while it lasts. She is a horrible liar. Why?

The Best Movies of 2009...

...and everything in between according to moi, coming soon.

I still need to see several that are playing at my local multiplex.
In the meantime, let me tell you: the prospect of seeing certain films gives me colic like when I had junior high school math at 8 am on Monday mornings and did not want to go to school. 

1. There is always a new pompously virtuous Clint Eastwood movie that I refuse to see.  I don't think that I can bear the stoic selfrighteousness of the entire enterprise, despite the presence of Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, both of whom I like intensely. I love to hate Clint Eastwood movies. For those of you who have not been in these pages before, I believe he is the most unfairly overrated director in America.

2. Precious sounds like very hard to swallow medicine. I'm quite curious about Mo'nique and Mariah and that new girl with the fantastic name, but the movie not only sounds like it's hard going, but like it is schmaltzy hard going, in which case I may not go at all.

3. The Road. Another barrel of laughs. Even the presence of scrumptious Viggo Mortensen does not make me want to run into the theater and fret about apocalyptic cannibals in the bleak near future.

4. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. I would not ordinarily miss anything with Alan Arkin in it, but this movie, like every other Rebecca Miller movie, sounds like a pill.

5. The Last Station. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer chewing the scenery as Mr and Mrs. Leo Tolstoy. I love her, never liked him. So sue me.
A.O hated it, Denby loved it. Sounds painful.

6. Gigante. Another bleak Uruguayan film. For the record, I am not a fan of Whiskey.
I know I should love Gigante in advance, but I don't. It will go to my Netflix list.

Where's that movie with Jeff Bridges for which he will finally get his Oscar? Is that playing somewhere already? I want to see that. Jeff Bridges I adore, love and worship.

Meanwhile, I'm doing my homework to bring you (not that you asked for it) the list of the bestest, best better, bland, and bad movies of this dismal year.

Stay tuned.

Dec 8, 2009

Up In The Air

I had high hopes for this film, since some people are touting it the best of the year.
Not even close. This is one strange film, with some right things in place and others that are just not believable, starting with George Clooney as a corporate hack from Omaha.
There is no way that this suave, glamorous man hails, lives, works or is found anywhere near Omaha. Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; that's someone who is from Omaha. Even if Clooney is good, in his Clooneyesque familiar way, he is too slick for the job.
Vera Farmiga is very good as a fellow million miles traveler and romantic interest, and so is Anna Kendrick, as a perky, uptight corporate girl, but even though the spirit of the movie is in the right place, this being probably the only fictional film from Hollywood that actually depicts our crumbling state of affairs (joblessness, foreclosures, wars), something about it doesn't quite convince. Everything feels forced.
Some of the dialogue is meant to sound like sharp one liners, except that it's something said by people who live in a movie, not in real life. For a film about reality in America, this creates dissonance. There are some scenes with people who have just been told they are fired which feel totally authentic. The rest, not at all.
The tone of this film is hard to sustain. It's a brittle/humane salad, an uneasy mix of dark and uplifting, and frankly, unless you are Billy Wilder and his writers (or Alexander Payne, the only true heir to Wilder, as far as I'm concerned), stuff like this is hard to nail. Jason Reitman did a good job with Juno, but here the brittle part feels too forced and the uplifting part too sappy, everything too contrived.
The movie never really explains cogently why Clooney's character, being just another employee at a terrible company that makes money by firing people from other companies, is also a motivational speaker. If this is meant as satire, it doesn't feel that way.
There are some good moments, as in a sequence where the characters crash into a tech convention party in Miami, which feels as dissociated from reality as those things actually are.  And there is also a fantastic twist involving Farmiga that has Clooney suffering from role reversal. To see someone like him on the other end of the dating stick is a vindication for women everywhere, and Farmiga's character, playing by the rules of men, is tough as nails, bless her.

Dec 5, 2009

The Brothers Carambazov

I just saw the original Danish film Brothers on Netflix to confirm what I felt after watching the American version yesterday: it suffers, like all American remakes, from terminal stupidization. It's as if subtlety were an infectious disease to be avoided at all costs.
Suzanne Bier's film is subtle, intimate and emotionally coherent, true to actual people, not movie clichés. The rewriting and the direction of the remake are so broad and heavy handed that all that big drama simply falls flat, despite the valiant efforts of the actors, which bring a dignity and humanity to the film that the rest of the team seems to have left at the door. A story that should have been handled with delicacy and care seems to have been written and directed by a tractor, and edited by a Brontosaurus.
There is one scene in the original film, where the entire family is celebrating the birthdays of one of the girls (in both movies, the kids are spectacular).
The Danish grandparents sit there, pretending to be happy, but when the kids leave the room they just crumple into their own exhausting grief. It is a miraculous moment that in a couple of seconds tells you more about pain than any grandiose speeches. Nothing of the sort ever happens in the American version.The main problem is the writing. There are many missed opportunities to create character and nuance. Everything is a cliché. Sam Shepard is the father, a sullen, uncommunicative Vietnam Vet and war hero who drinks on the side. How many times have you seen that in a movie? 

Why oh why this American obsession with heroics? It is inane and infantile and FUCKING BORING ALREADY. I can't take it anymore.
Or take Natalie Portman, an actress I don't particularly like. She is very good in this film, and cries convincingly every time she is required to. But who is she? What's she like, other than beautiful and a total cipher? In the original, Connie Nielsen shows character 1 minute into the film. She is a no nonsense, strong woman, not a long suffering angel with no personality.
The American movie makes stupid choices. Why does Sam Shepard have a new wife, instead of the mother of the two brothers? What good does this do?
There is a stupid business with a letter, the classic cliché of someone who gets a letter and refuses to open it. How many times have you seen that in a film?
The scenes in Afghanistan are painfully bogus and mostly unnecessary. The main terrorist wears thin rimmed glasses of the latest fashion and seems to be reading in the middle of hellhole, who knows why. Evil is intelectual?
Everything is milked for cheap sentiment, but then the characters never have moments to reveal themselves with gestures, the writer prefers to have them recriminating each other by having screaming matches.  Paradoxically, the more difficult emotional nuances of the original have been toned down, because every single American needs to be a freaking boy scout. It is revolting.
The movie is shot like a Hallmark movie of the week, with both too much coverage and quick cutting to reactions, which makes it feel totally fake, and yet there's a weird rhythm to many scenes, which seem to go on for way too long. The use of music is offensive.
The entire thing is mangled, except for the poor actors.
Tobey McGuire, losing weight for Oscar night, is very impressive as the soldier brother. His character is written like a walking cliché, but he finds the truth in the horror of his war experience. He loses it, not only spectacularly, but truly, to unspeakable guilt and anguish, even if he is saddled with a ridiculous, contrived suicidal scene.
Jake Gyllenhaal just does not have enough edge as the fuck up brother. He has been better in other movies, like Jarhead or even Zodiac. He is adorable, but not right for this role. He and Tobey look the same age, which is a problem. His relationship with his brother's wife is incomprehensible and I blame the writer and the director for that, although an actor with a more independent, imaginative streak perhaps would have found more complexity in the role.
Actually, the only one bearing the brunt of the complexity is Tobey McGuire and he acquits himself with flying colors.
Watching the Danish film, i realized that besides the family drama, the movie posits that our fight against barbarism is turning us into barbarians. The fear of the West is that we are being forced to stoop down to worse than Neanderthal level (with apologies to Neanderthals). The American film is too busy trying to be marketable to make these kinds of connections. It's one redeeming virtue is that it brings out the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and of the human consequences of our wars in those places. For a much more honest depiction of this, I recommend The Messenger.
And certainly, the Danish original movie, Brothers.